The European Union warned Thailand on Friday that it should "promptly" address the human rights and slavery issues that have dogged its seafood industry if it wants to stave off an EU seafood import ban.
Several investigative reports by The Associated Press focused on slavery in the seafood industry and resulted in the rescue of 2,000 men this year, highlighting longstanding abuses in Thai fisheries.
Thailand is a major exporter of seafood, with yearly revenues of almost 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion), and an EU ban would seriously affect the industry.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella said even though the 28-nation bloc was primarily assessing Thailand's improvements in stamping out illegal fishing, there was no sidestepping the slavery issue.
Thailand, the world's third-largest seafood exporter, was given a warning by the EU in April to improve its fisheries practices or face an export ban to the wealthy European bloc. Annual Thai fish exports to the EU are estimated to be worth between 575 million and 730 million euros ($624 million to $792 million).
"We are still assessing whether Thailand has made sufficient progress in delivering on the actions" it was asked to take in April, Vella told reporters Friday.
"Regarding human rights, slavery on board and so on — yes, apart from the fishing issues, the Commission also believes that Thailand should also address promptly the human rights issues," he replied to a question from the AP.
The EU wants nations to be able to track their vessels and make sure they declare their catches to promote sustainable fishing and counter overfishing. The Commission is not expected to make a ruling on the Thai issue until late next month.
Vella spoke during a visit from Ghanean Fisheries Minister Sherry Ayittey, who noted that her nation was once penalized with such a ban.
"It was like a wake-up call," Ayittey said. "It was necessary. It helped us to reshape our own governance of the fisheries sector."
Beyond illegal fishing though, Thailand also faces the slavery issue.
In the U.S., Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, wrote to the Labor Department and the Food and Drug Administration this week demanding investigations after the AP investigated the shrimp peeling industry as well.
"I am deeply concerned for the welfare of adult and children shrimp peelers in Thailand, who are forced to work in one of the most abhorrent slavery schemes of the 21st century," he wrote.
Grocery and seafood organizations, meanwhile, say suppliers have to take responsibility for eliminating labor abuses in the fishing industry.
"In the case of the Thai shrimp industry, this means that simple audits and inspections of third-party shrimp peeling houses will not suffice, as corrupt police and inspectors turn a blind eye to abuses," said John Sackton in a report for Progressive Grocer.